Happy Centennial, General Relativity!

general_relativity_centennial_kip_thorne(Click for larger view.) Well, I’ve already mentioned why today is such an important day in the history of human thought – One Hundred years of Certitude was the title of the post I used, in talking about the 100th Anniversary (today) of Einstein completing the final equations of General Relativity – and our celebration of it back last Friday went very well indeed. Today on NPR Adam Frank did an excellent job expanding on things a bit, so have a listen here if you like.

As you might recall me saying, I was keen to note and celebrate not just what GR means for science, but for the broader culture too, and two of the highlights of the day were examples of that. The photo above is of Kip Thorne talking about the science (solid General Relativity coupled with some speculative ideas rooted in General Relativity) of the film Interstellar, which as you know […] Click to continue reading this post

The New Improved Scooby-Gang? (Part 1)

This is a group shot from an excellent event I mentioned on here only briefly:


(Click for larger view. Photo from album linked below.) It was on Back to the Future Day… the date (October 21st 2015) that Marty McFly came forward in time to in the second of the BTTF movies… where we found hover boards and so forth, if you recall. The Science and Entertainment Exchange hosted a packed event at the Great Company (in downtown LA) which had several wonderful things and people, including some of the props from the films, the designer of lots of the props from the films, a ballroom done up like the high school prom of the first film, the actor who played George McFly (in the second two films), an actual DeLorean, and so much more. Oh! Also four experts who talked a bit about aspects of the science and other technical matters in the movies, such as […] Click to continue reading this post

One Hundred Years of Certitude

Einstein_CentennialSince the early Summer I’ve been working (with the help of several people at USC*) toward a big event next Friday: A celebration of 100 years since Einstein formulated the field equations of General Relativity, a theory which is one of the top one or few (depending upon who you argue with over beers about this) scientific achievements in the history of human thought. The event is a collaboration between the USC Harman Academy of Polymathic Study and the LAIH, which I co-direct. I chose the title of this post since (putting aside the obvious desire to resonate with a certain great work of literature) this remarkable scientific framework has proven to be a remarkably robust and accurate model of how our universe’s gravity actually works in every area it has been tested with experiment and observation**. Despite being all about bizarre things like warped spacetime, slowing down time, and so forth, which most people think is to do only with science fiction. (And yes, you probably test it every day through your […] Click to continue reading this post

Moon Line

(Click for larger view.) This was a heartening reminder that people still care about what’s going on in the sky far above. This is a snap I took of a very long line of people (along the block and then around the corner and then some more) waiting for the shuttle bus to the Griffith Observatory to take part in the moon viewing activities up there tonight. (I took it at about 6:00pm, so I hope they all made it up in time!) The full moon is at close approach, and there was a total lunar eclipse as well. Knowing the people at the Observatory, I imagine they had arranged for lots of telescopes to be out on the lawn in front of the Observatory itself, as well as plenty of people on hand to explain things to curious visitors.

I hope you got to see some of the eclipse! (It is just coming off peak now as I type…)

-cvj Click to continue reading this post


office_musings_2 Just thought I’d share with you a snapshot (click for larger view) of my thinking process concerning my office move. I’ve been in the same tiny box of an office for 12 years, and quite happy too. For various reasons (mostly to do with one large window with lots of light), over the years I’ve turned down offers to move to nicer digs… but recently I’ve decided to make a change (giving up some of the light) and so after much to-ing and fro-ing, it seems that we’ve settled on where I’m going to go.

Part of the process involved me walking over there (it’s an old lab space from several decades ago, hence the sink, which I want to stay) with a tape measure one day and making some notes in my notebook about the basic dimensions of some of the key things, including some of the existing […] Click to continue reading this post

Face the Morning…

expo_line_lady_11_sept_15With the new semester and a return to the routine of campus life comes taking the subway train regularly in the morning again, which I’m pleased to return to. It means odd characters, snippets of all sort of conversations, and – if I get a seat and a good look – the opportunity to practice a bit of quick sketching of faces. I’m slow and rusty from no recent regular practice, so I imagine that it was mostly luck that helped me get a reasonable likeness […] Click to continue reading this post

MacArthur’s Balls

macarthur_balls_cvjYou should go and see them! (Click image for larger view.) Nobody seems to be talking much about this – or I’m utterly out of touch these days since I’ve not seen a thing about this and nobody I asked seems to know either – but there’s a wonderful thing to see down at MacArthur Park. (No, it is most definitely not a cake left out in the rain, since… you know… no rain.) There are about 2500 spheres floating in the lake, and looking quite splendid, I might add. I love this highly neglected park, and so am glad that someone feels the same way and got (I read after gingerly googling “balls macarthur park” and finding this article) about 10,000 volunteers to help paint and launch these balls in an art project aimed at bringing the park back into people’s minds, at least for a while.

The panorama (click for larger view) does not do it justice, since it flattens and shrinks, by necessity, so I recommend going along and getting up close and having a look (as I ought to have done, but was on my way home in a rush and […] Click to continue reading this post

PBS Shoot Fun

pbs_shoot_selfieMore adventures in communicating the awesomeness of physics! Yesterday I spent a gruelling seven hours in the sun talking about the development of various ideas in physics over the centuries for a new show (to air next year) on PBS. Interestingly, we did all of this at a spot that, in less dry times, would have been underwater. It was up at lake Piru, which, due to the drought, is far below capacity. You can see this by going to google maps, looking at the representation of its shape on the map, and then clicking the satellite picture overlay to see the much changed (and reduced) shape in recent times.

There’s an impressive dam at one end of the lake/reservoir, and I will admit that I did not resist the temptation to pull over, look at a nice view of it from the road on the way home, and say out loud “daaayuum”. An offering to the god Pun, you see.


Turns out that there’s a wide range of wildlife, large and small, trudging around on the […] Click to continue reading this post

Fresh Cycle

brompton_30_08_2015I’ve been a bit quiet here the last week or so, you may have noticed. I wish I could say it was because I’ve been scribbling some amazing new physics in my notebooks, or drawing several new pages for the book, or producing some other simply measurable output, but I cannot. Instead, I can only report that it was the beginning of a new semester (and entire new academic year!) this week just gone, and this – and all the associated preparations and so forth – coincided with several other things including working on several drafts of a grant renewal proposal.

The best news of all is that my new group of students for my class (graduate electromagnetism, second part) seems like a really good and fun group, and I am looking forward to working with them. We’ve had two lectures already and they seem engaged, and eager to take part in the way I like my classes to run – interactively and investigatively. I’m looking forward to working with them over the semester.

Other things I’ve been chipping away at in preparation for the next couple of months include launching the USC science film competition (its fourth year – I skipped last year because of family leave), moving my work office (for the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here), giving some lectures at an international school, organizing a symposium in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s General Relativity, and a number of shoots for some TV shows that might be of […] Click to continue reading this post

Red and Round…


Some more good results from the garden, after I thought that the whole crop was again going to be prematurely doomed, like last year. I tried to photograph the other thing about this year’s gardening narrative that I intend to tell you about, but with poor results, but I’ll say more shortly. In the meantime, for the record here are some Carmello tomatoes and some of a type of Russian Black […] Click to continue reading this post

To Fill a Mockingbird

baby_mocking_birds_1Meanwhile, here at the Aviary (as we’re calling the garden because of the ridiculously high level of bird activity there has been in the last few months) there has been some interesting news. Happy news, some would say. This is hard for me since it is all about my arch-nemesis (or one of them) the Mockingbird. Many hours of sleep have been damaged because of them (they do their spectacular vocal antics during both night and day – loudly), and there seems to be more and more of them each year. I’ve been known to go outside (in various stages of undress) in the wee hours of the morning and thrash long sticks at parts of trees to chase persistent offenders away.

Well, we’d noticed that a particular spot in a hedge was being visited regularly some weeks back, and guessed that there might be a nest in there. Then one day last week, two juvenile mockingbirds emerged, practicing their flying! I knew immediately what they were since they have the same markings, but their feathers still have those fluffy/downy clumpiness in places, and of course they were not nearly as acrobatic as their adult counterparts. They hung out on […] Click to continue reading this post

Marginal Activity

The last couple of weeks have seen me fiddling with another important task for the book: rethinking the page dimensions. This gets me into things like crop points, safe areas, bleeds, and so forth. It is sort of crucial that I worry about this now and not later because for the kind of book I am working on, every single page is a unique self contained entity that must be designed individually, while at the same time each page still depends on all the other pages to be just right. So a change in page dimensions is a huge deal in the process. This is not like writing large blocks of prose in the form of chapters and paragraphs, where the page dimensions are less crucial since your words will just flow and re-flow automatically to adjust to the new shape of container (the page), newly spilling over to the next page if need be. Instead, graphic elements -the drawings- all must work together on a number of different levels on the page, their relative positioning being crucial, and any text that is present must also respect that layout… In fact, text is really just another graphic element on the page, and is not as malleable as it is in a prose book.

sample_exp_iv (Random sample from a story I’ve just completed the roughs for in the new dimensions. You can see the red guide lines I work to to make sure that the page comes out fine at the printer, the inner being the “safe area” beyond which you don’t put any crucial elements like text in case they are cut off. The outer is the line where the page should end. Some of my pages have “bleeds” which means the art will flow all the way past that outer line so that when cropped that part of the page is covered entirely with art instead of it stopping due to a panel border…)

I say all this because it is an issue close to my heart right now. Back when I did all the art for the prototype story (some years ago now), and right up to last year, I did not yet have a publisher for the book, so therefore of course no idea what the final page dimensions might be. Different publishers have different favourites, print capabilities, and so forth. So I made the best decision […] Click to continue reading this post

Ships and Knobs…

[Extract from some of my babble that night:] “…”science advisor” which is such a confusing and misunderstood term. Most people think of us (and use us) as fact-checkers, and while I DO do that, it is actually the least good use of a scientist in the service of story-telling. As fact-checkers, usually engaged late in the process of a film being made, we’re just tinkering at the edges of an already essentially completed project. It is as if the main ship that is the movie has been built, has the journey planned out, and the ship has maybe even sailed, and we’re called in to spend an hour or two discussing whether the cabin door handles should be brass or chrome finish…” [I went on to describe how to help make better ships, sent on more interesting journeys..]

Photo from here. Original FB version of this post here. Click to continue reading this post


Yesterday, an interesting thing happened while I was out in my neighbourhood walking my son for a good hour or more (covered, in a stroller – I was hoping he’d get some sleep), visiting various shops, running errands. Before describing it, I offer two bits of background information as (possibly relevant?) context. (1) I am black. (2) I live in a neighbourhood where there are very few people of my skin colour as residents. Ok, here’s the thing:

* * *

I’m approaching two young (mid-to-late teens?) African-American guys, sitting at a bus stop, chatting and laughing good-naturedly. As I begin to pass them, nodding a hello as I push the stroller along, one of them stops me. […] Click to continue reading this post

Speed Dating for Science!

youtubespace panelLast night was amusing. I was at the YouTubeLA space with 6 other scientists from various fields, engaging with an audience of writers and other creators for YouTube, TV, film, etc.

It was an event hosted by the Science and Entertainment Exchange and Youtube/Google, and the idea was that we each had seven minutes to present in seven successive rooms with different audiences in each, so changing rooms each seven minutes.

Of course, early on during the planning conference call for the event, one of the scientists asked why it was not more efficient to simply have one large […] Click to continue reading this post

On-Screen Fun…

trevor_hal_cvj_screen_junkiesWell, yesterday afternoon was fun! I was at the studios of the people who bring you Screen Junkies, Honest Trailers, and other film-related entertainment. Why? We were recording another fun conversation concerning science at the movies! The new episode will be released on Thursday at 10:00am, and so check back here or go over to the Screen Junkies channel for updates. What’s the subject? Well, I’ll let you guess which huge movie (in theatres near you right now) we discussed – wait until Thursday to find out for sure! (There’s a major clue in the photo.)

The great thing about all of this is that I got to hang out with Hal Rudnick (the host – who was as funny as always – he’s in the centre of the photo), Trevor Valle* (I’ve not seen him in a while so it was good to catch up!) who was my […] Click to continue reading this post

Tales from the Industry XXXXI – Puppet Black Hole

Yeah. Not sure how to best title this post or fully explain the picture [edit: Picture taken down temporarily until the show is ready to be promoted]. Let’s just say that I spent a bit of this afternoon explaining some of the science of the Large Hadron Collider to a bright orange puppet that was determined to not believe whatever I told him/it. It was fun, and was done to camera at Los Angeles Center Studios downtown. (I was actually speaking about things that intersect with the subject of yesterday’s post, if you’re interested.) It is for a new show on a channel that I can’t mention yet*, and I’ll let you know as soon as I know what the air date is, etc.

Well, one more thing, in support of the old “It’s a small world after all” saying. I noticed from the call sheet that this morning they were shooting a fun segment that was hosted by my friend Hal Rudnick the host of Screen Junkies! (Have a look at some of the science-meets-movies things we’ve done together here, here and here.) Also, a friend I’d not seen in […] Click to continue reading this post

Quick Experiment…

On my way back from commencement day on campus last Friday I got to spend a bit of time on the subway, and for the first time in a while I got to do a quick sketch. (I have missed the subway so much!) Yesterday, at home, I found myself with a couple of new brushes that I wanted to try out, and so I did a brushed ink sketch from the sketch… quick_ink_experimentIt felt good to flow the ink around – haven’t done that in a while either. Then I experimented with splashing a bit of digital colour underneath it. (This is all with the graphic book project in mind, where I think at least one story might […] Click to continue reading this post

LAIH Field Trip – Parks and Recreation

Last Friday’s luncheon for the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities had a double treat. First, it was a field trip to another interesting and exciting Los Angeles space – Clockshop/Elysian, down near the river in Frogtown. Clockshop is a wonderful arts organisation whose concerns fit very neatly with many of ours: From their website:

Clockshop is a multifaceted arts organization that works at the intersection of politics, urban space, and cultural production to explore the forces that shape our lived environment. We program events and screenings, and produce artist projects and conversations. […]

Elysian is an excellent restaurant, the main space where Clockshop events are held, and we were served splendid lunch there while Clockshop director Julia Meltzer told us a little about Clockshop.
LAIH_clockshop_1 [click for larger view]

The second treat was a talk (over coffee and cookies) by Jon Christensen (editor of Boom) entitled “A Century Beyond John Muir: A 21st Century Vision for California Parks”, detailing a project to rejuvenate, expand (and enhance the awareness […] Click to continue reading this post

In Case You Wondered…

Dear visitor who came here (perhaps) after visiting the panel I participated in on Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books. (“Grasping the Ineffable: On Science and Health”) What a fun discussion! Pity we ran out of time before we really began to explore connections, perhaps inspired by more audience questions.

In any event, in case you wondered why I was not signing books at the end at the designated signing area, I thought I’d write this note. I was given the option to do so, but the book that I currently have out is a specialist monograph, and I did not think there’s be much demand for it at a general festival such as the one on the weekend. (Feel free to pick up a copy if you wish, though. It is called “D-Branes”, and it is here.)

The book I actually mentioned during the panel, since it is indeed among my current attempts to grasp the “ineffable” of the panel title, is a work in progress. (Hence my variant of the “under construction” sign on the right.) It is a graphic book (working title “The Dialogues”) pitched at a general audience that explores a lot of contemporary physics topics in an unusual way. It is scheduled for publication in 2017 by Imperial College Press. You can find out much more about it here.

Feel free to visit this blog for updates on how the book progresses, and of course lots of other topics and conversations too (which you are welcome to join).

-cvj Click to continue reading this post